David waved as Nancy’s car backed out. He worriedly heavy-stepped back to the porch and
She loved her dog. As long as he behaved.
In the living room, David paced. The cats, parked on the sofa, one at each end, watched him. They didn’t remind him of Sam. By the time he got sick, Sam had gone way beyond just cat. He had become Best Friend Forever who happened to be a cat. David had actually told the woman he thought he was going to marry that Sam came first. Thinking about it later, it was surprising that she didn’t just up and leave him then. Now, a year later, he had spent a year without Sam, without another cat, and without another woman. Until Nancy. And until Nancy’s cats. Still pacing, David repeated Nancy’s mantra that Swat liked it in his cage. That it was his home. That he would eventually quiet down once he got used to it, to the new house, to the cold porch.
But Swat didn’t quiet down. He became louder as the morning wore on. Unfortunately, David’s office was just off the porch. While David pecked at his laptop’s keyboard, tapping each key as loudly as he could, Swat’s mourning was still louder.
He’ll eventually just settle down and nap, thought David, without believing it.
He debated about going to the café down on Main, where he could sit with his computer and work, or more accurately, chat with people and not work at all, which is really what he wanted. But he worried about leaving Swat. And, let’s face it, David thought, anyone could just step on the porch and open Swat’s cage. But that was the paranoid New Yorker thinking. Deciding suddenly, David slipped his laptop into his bag and headed out. There were two ways to leave the house: the front door or through the summer porch in the back. The front door was deadbolted, and he never used it. His poker friends just showed up on the back porch, which, by the way, looked over his sad but first-ever garden. David considered using the front door to avoid Swat, but it was tricky to open. Whenever David did open it, it would release a wood scent from another century, which was when the house was built, in 1860, a fact that had appealed to David, stupidly, when he bought the place. But David couldn’t lock the door from outside. And again, the paranoid New Yorker in him simply couldn’t leave it unlocked. So David left by the porch and passed Swat without looking at him.
It was a big mistake not to carefully close the screen door. When it slapped shut behind David, Swat erupted. But David was determined. He walked down the narrow sidewalk, his shoes kicking and crunching through pumpkin-colored leaves. It usually took about three minutes to get to Main. At a minute and a half David couldn’t take the barking any longer, and turned back. It wasn’t so much about feeling sorry for Swat than it was fear of disturbing the neighbors. The neighbors along the road weren’t particularly conscientious themselves. They mowed their lawns on Sundays. They played music loudly at night, talked loudly with their buddies on their porches, let their dogs run free to shit over everybody’s lawns, left soggy sofas on their lawns near the sidewalk, as well as other free items that absolutely nobody wanted. But having come from a tightly packed urban apartment building, where all the small courtesies mattered, David couldn’t shake those courtesies off. He couldn’t yet embrace the one-man-is-an-island/country/republic sensibility that seemed attractive to people up here.
When he got back, Swat immediately quieted down. But when he realized that David wasn’t about to release him, he went back to the whimpering, the stamping, the crying, and the scratching the grate. Sam the cat was never like this. Dogs were like children! They were too much work! The woman — Clarissa — had wanted children. David had gone along with the idea of it. The breakup devastated him, but in between the lamenting was the relief. His life would return to normal: New York, Vermont, back to New York. Sleep in an empty bed, watch TV late. Everything he’d done for the last twenty years. The entire enterprise of his life in a few key habits and rituals. He never dove too deeply into its implications.
David sat in his office and tried to get back to work, but he didn’t get far; Swat’s keening was impossible to ignore. How can anyone ignore the crying of a locked up child? You can’t, basically, not if you want to look in the mirror. So David went back to the porch. Swat went nuts. It was as though he knew exactly what was on David’s mind. Swat furiously scratched the plastic walls and floors of the cage. He hooked his black claws on the grate. But now David paused, ludicrously, driving Swat to frustration. David stopped because he was scared of Swat. Swat’s needs overwhelmed, intimidated. David didn’t want to get hurt when he let Swat out. But he manned up, bent down to flick the latch, and Swat flew out with the velocity of popped corn.
David felt pretty good about his altruism. He heard Swat shoot around the house for a minute, barely under control, before he came back, smiling. Swat curled on the floor in his office, where David finally could sit at his desk and work. Work. It was an incongruous job considering the locale. David had to provide a comparison of various financial websites, your Lloyd’s, your Wells Fargo. It felt out of place. And although it was peaceful here, mostly, and mostly quiet, the work took him twice as long as the equivalent assignment in New York. How do you evaluate the brands of banks while just outside your window a maple tree is shivering and birds you can’t name are flying around it, organizing themselves for something? How do you work on a PowerPoint when you can see thunderheads massing and you wonder if the mountains will split the storm like that old drunkard friend in town claimed they could? It was really impossible. The air smelled green and carroty. Nobody can possibly expect a sane human being to seriously give a damn about a financial institution’s brand when the world was happening outside one’s window. New York was built for work — it was a giant factory of work and workers. People came to New York to make money, like migrating to an oil town. The purpose of people’s lives here, here in Vermont, was less obvious for most. In general, Vermont offered only a few broad categories of employment. Agriculture, construction, and shopkeeping occupied one third of the population, dereliction and alcoholism another third, while the rest took up social services to tend to the middle third. You could only really enjoy Vermont if you did not engage in it too deeply. David stopped typing and leaned back, letting warm air wash over him. The air here smelled sweet. And he could smell the dog, its breath, its hair, the skin on its belly. He could hear Swat breathe.
Nancy’s car pulled up. It was lunchtime. She had come to walk Swat.
“Hey, what happened?”
“Well, he was barking loud.” This was the new tactic. Not the torture argument, but a plea around civil order. “The neighbors. I was worried.”
“You should have just let him quiet down.”
“Ok, but he wasn’t. He was going nuts, actually.”
Nancy glowered. “Poor bastard,” added David.
“This is just going to just make things worse. He’s not going to learn.”
“Swat doesn’t like it in there.”
“You have to believe me. It’s his little house. You know? He’ll get used to it. He’s just adjusting. Look, when you’re back in New York and you can’t be with him during the day, it’s better for him in his cage.”
She had a point. “Okay.” This is your future, David thought. This is you, busybodying yourself into people’s lives. Maybe Swat really did like the cage, and he just needed time. David had never owned a dog. He didn’t understand them or their ways. Nancy was an expert. She knew what was best.
“It should be fine in a few days,” Nancy said.
Nancy took Swat out for his walk. When she came back she led him back to his cage; Swat obliged, obediently. After she left, Swat whined. David went upstairs, to the bedroom, where, once inside, he closed the door and lay on his bed, trying to at least pretend to nap. It was an old house that sent heat around the rooms through enormous ducts that opened into vents in the floors: basically a 19th century sound system. And through it, amplified, elongated, like a baby’s wailing in a horror movie, came the miserable cries of Swat.
“How was he?” asked Nancy after she got home for work.
“Give it time. You don’t know dogs.”
David started talking. A string of words popping out. He wasn’t even sure what he was saying. “I’ve never hosted a black ops jail, either, and yet I feel comfortable moralizing against torture.” He was back on the torture theme. Nancy gave him a look — a new one. He’d seen it before, recently, in other people her age. Nancy was younger than David, by about 18 years. It was the look of judging someone who wasn’t making sense. When you’re between twenty and thirty-five you can get away with talking nonsense. Someone charitable might value it as adorable. Older than that, and unmarried, you begin to sound like a crank. And what makes a crank a crank isn’t what one believes, necessarily, but it’s the unfiltered and constant expression of it that drives people away. It’s the inability to stopper the bottle.
“That’s incredibly mean! Swat isn’t tortured.”
“I’m going to open this wine.”
Swat was there, in their faces, because Nancy had come home. The tantrums forgotten; the misery forgiven. The future bright. “Oh, Swat? You want your dinner?” Then, Swat’s tail nodding rapidly, as though it were only the tail hungry. Nancy played with Swat, Swat throwing his front paws against her legs. After the weed and popcorn it was David’s turn to forget. His complaints melted away as he and Nancy laughed hysterically in the kitchen, popcorn flying, wine staining the countertop, a cloud of pot smoke beginning to form.
They fucked again. David’s face during the entire thing stayed knotted with concern, thinking, ruminating, worrying. They both kept their glasses on. He could smell Swat on her, on her hands, and on her clothes strewn at the bed’s foot.
The next morning on her way out, Nancy led her dog once again to the cage on the porch. David watched her, a mug of coffee in his hand. The cage door clicked shut, Nancy rose. She stared at David, challenging him to disobey her. Last night, he had buried his face in her vagina, moments after marveling at the blonde strands of her pubic hairs. How could one put these two moments together, the evil eyes stare now and just a few hours earlier her face flushed and grinning? David, at 48, had yet to marry, had yet even now to form a romantic relationship that lasted for more than a few months, so these contrasts still astonished him. Over the years who had spent the most hours in his bed? His cat. That’s why Sam’s death had taken an essential core out of David. That girl had seen it. It had terrified her, so she ran. David couldn’t blame her anymore. He could see himself now in all his glory; he was precisely that old, old enough for the temporary and controlled out-of-body experience that revealed to him the unresolved crank, standing in the middle of badly decorated rooms like a monster.
After Nancy had left, it didn’t take long for Swat to begin his aria. David urged the dog to consider the bigger picture, but Swat paid no heed, and continued to rend his clothes. “Come on, Swat. She’ll be home soon!” A lie, and Swat knew it.